Despite being knocked out the Scottish Cup at the quarter final stage for the second year running, Ayr United's under-19 side have proved consistency at this level will win them the plaudits.
To reach this stage of the competition for the past couple of years when it had never been achieved before in the club's history must be a step in the right direction for the Academy. It shows it can produce the players capable of competing with the best that's on offer in Scotland at this level.
With one player recently signed from Glasgow Rangers and another fresh off the back of a call up to the Scotland International under 17 camp, things are looking rosy for the Ayrshire Academy.
This quarter final pitched Ayr against South of Scotland side Queen of the South whom Ayr had defeated on the road to the same stage last season so it could have been the Dumfries club were looking for some revenge.
With a semifinal spot beckoning for both teams, it was always going to be a hard fought affair that swung from end to end.
With a last minute change of venue from QoS Palmerston Park to Gretna FC's Raydale Park, it set itself up as being a real ding dong battle on the surface at a cold and damp turf.
With Ayr playing in their changed shirts of yellow and black, they set upon their Southern rivals like a bunch of hornets and it didn't take long for the game to get juicy.
Speedy and jinky Roddy Paterson was pulled down near the edge of the box after only five minutes when clean through on goal, but the referee deemed the offence as only yellow cardable. Had this not been a youth match, many would have expected a red to be shown, but the Ayr side's intention was clear for all to see.
From the resultant free kick, Scotland call up Mark Shankland pulled the trigger on a spectacular free kick that flew into the right hand side of the goal, giving his side the lead in the early stages and much to the delight of his watching parents.
Youngster Mark has spent some time away from Ayr recently, with trials at Liverpool and more recently Burnley, but all this attention hasn't altered the players willingness to fight and scrap for the cause and also his ability to fire in plenty of goals, keeps him grounded as the rest of his Ayr United teammates.
Ayr went close only four minutes later when Shankland rose above the defence to meet a corner with his head, only to see his effort rebound from the bar. Paterson picked the ball up near the byline but couldn't angle his shot accutely enough to squeeze it in.
The two players link up play had been exceptional to this point. They are both fast, comfortable on the ball and know each others style of play;It's no wonder they scored over 50 goals between them last season and are currently seen as the next big things to come out of the Academy attacking setup.
As we all know in soccer, we sometimes come to rue the missed opportunities presented to us in games and this was pushed through to us all as Queen of the South dragged themselves back into the match with a simply outstanding free kick that eclipsed Shanklands earlier goal.
From all of 30 yards out from the Ayr goal, Queens player Patrick Slattery fired in a thunderbolt of a shot that screamed past everyone and bulged the left hand side of the goal net via the post. The shot left the Ayr keeper McLatchie no chance of reaching;indeed two keepers couldn't have saved the strike it was hit with such venom.
The match was evenly poised as it progressed from this and chances although abundant at either end, both sides seemed to be missing that killer final touch that had been shown with the two pinpoint free kicks that had been so accurate in the early stages of this match.
Ayr were pushing and seemed to be getting themselves back on top of the game as the first period of play continued. With chances for Paterson, Shankland and Hutchison all going agonising close, it appeared that it would be a matter of time before they added another goal.
Queen of the South are no mugs though and hit on the break nearly beating the keeper with a 20 yard dipping effort that needed to be tipped over the bar to keep the game level.
Shanklands pace and trickery was causing the Queens defenders problems and his skill outwitted his marking defender 30 yards out only to be hacked at from behind, earning the home side their second yellow of the game and Shankland a couple of sore achilles.
A moment of controversy occurred on the 35th minute when the referee pointed to the after the home side swung in a corner and a seemingly innocuous off the ball collision resulted in the man in black giving a spot kick to the Dunfries side. After a few moments of bewilderment from the Ayr defender,he was cautioned for his part in the incident and stepped away from the box to allow his counterparts the chance to take the lead.
Justice appeared to have been done when McLatchie in the Ayr goal dived to save what was a strongly hit spot kick, although not angled very well.
The penalty looked harsh as it appeared from nothing but the referee saw something when awarding but no harm done thanks to the save.
Before the half ran out, Ayr again pushed for the leading goal, firstly with a Paterson-Kelly-Shankland link up that saw the ball drift wide of the left post and the final chance of the half fell to Kelly from a corner but he watched as his effort fly over the bar.
It was an entertaining first half that could have ended 4-4 had chances and shots been on target but 1-1 at this point was a fair enough result.
The second half began with the Queens on the ascendancy and it wasn't long before a small period of pressure told on the visiting side as they failed to clear their lines in their own 6 yard box.
After two shots on target, Slattery picked up the ball from a failed goal-line clearance attempt in the Ayr defence to knock home from only two yards out. This goal was the total opposite from his earlier goal for his side but the young player did not care how he scored, it was just that he scored.
It was a disastrous start to the second half for the Ayr side and they looked momentarily shell shocked at being behind in this match and but for tremendous diving save by the Ayr goalie,they would have went a further goal behind from a shot from 10 yards out.
Ayr made a couple of subs on the 60 minute mark, bringing on some fresh legs on a heavy damp pitch. This change however forced QoS into a formation change that seemed to suit their style of play better.
Despite this alteration to the formation, Ayr continued to look for the equalizer at every opportunity but were finding it hard to break down a stubborn midfield and defence in order to make the breakthrough required.
Darren McGill was next to try his hand for Ayr after receiving a cut back from Shankland on the goal line, but his daisycutting shot was stopped by the Queens keeper.
With most of the players moving forward in search of the all important goal, Ayr were leaving gaps in their rearguard and were nearly caught cold when the Queens broke forward, rounded the keeper and with a gaping net, the striker somehow managed to place it in the side netting much to the relief of the Ayr coaching staff.
With 10 minutes remaining, time was running out for the visiting side to equalize; Flip side of that coin meant that Queen of the South were only 10 minutes away from a semifinal berth so defensive lines were shored up and attacking options were limited.
Ayr did have another couple of chances as time faded but they just couldn't get the ball over the line for the goal.
The match finished without further incident and it was the boys in blue and white that celebrated victory and that elusive final four spot in the Scottish Cup.
For Ayr, it might have been a loss on the day but a look at the big picture shows a great future for many of the young players.
Afterwards Ayr coach Tom Robertson said:"The victory was there for the taking but we just couldn't score any more goals. We are all disappointed in the result but the boys played out their skin. It was just one of those days where the ball wouldn't go in the back of the net."
Marc Roseblade is a contributor for Bleacher Report and youth development press officer for Ayr United Football Academy. All quotes are first hand unless otherwise stated.
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